Posted from Glen Ellen, CA
“First you taste sweet, which is the cow’s milk. Then salt, which balances and enhances the sweet. Then a finish that’s slightly earthy, like mushrooms, from the bloomy rind, bringing a depth and pleasing bitter note to the trio.”
Lynne Devereux was explaining the progression of flavors I could anticipate tasting as she handed me a slice of Marin French Cheese Company’s triple crème brie. This cheese in 2004 claimed first place in an international competition in France, thus beating the French at their own game. I eagerly accepted her offering.
OH, MY! That mouthful was literally moan-inducing. As someone who fervently believes that cheese merits its own exclusive food group, I was in cheese heaven.
Lynne, the company’s marketing and public relations manager, continued explaining the product’s singular attributes. “Our cheese is creamy, fatty, unctuous, and coats the mouth.”
It’s little wonder that Marin French Cheese Company in Petaluma, which the locals affectionately call “The Cheese Factory,” is the longest continuously operating cheese manufacturer in America. Founded in 1865 as Thompson Brothers Creamery, the company specializes in handcrafted traditional and original soft-ripened cheeses like brie and camembert. Back then, the company shipped its cheeses by boat via both river and ocean to Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), helping to furnish the protein of the day to dockworkers in that booming port city.
When the Thompsons established the company on the 700 pristine acres of their Hicks Valley Ranch, they used the milk from their own cows. In 1930, they sold the herd, adopting the still-guiding philosophy of buying milk from neighboring dairies.
The company remained somewhat sleepy until 1990 when the renaissance of artisan cheese-making and a, pardon the pun, hunger to know how food is made swept the country. Suddenly, in a nod to its French counterpart, the area north of the Golden Gate Bridge earned the moniker New Normandy. The Thompsons sold the enterprise in 1998 to Jim Boyes, who rolled out new cheese flavors. In 2011, Rians, a family-owned French cheese company, acquired Marin French Cheese Company.
What makes this area so cheese-noteworthy? As it is with wine making, it’s all about geography and climate. Pastures with diverse, nutritious grasses and a fog-influenced climate make happy Jersey, Holstein, and Guernsey cows that produce quality, tasty milk.
While their process of making cheese is proprietary, Lynne pointed out some of the basic steps as presented on a display board. Once the daily milk tanker arrives, it’s: pasteurization; adding appropriate starter cultures, a coagulant, and heat to form curds; cutting curds to release whey: tipping curds and whey into small molds to form cheese; unmolding formed cheese and putting it into a salty brine tank for preserving; draining; mold ripening; and hand packaging.
When it comes to eating cheese, Lynne recommends 1-1/2 ounces per person. For ease of measurement, ½ ounce is a tablespoon. Cold closes up the flavor, and as cheese warms toward room temperature it gains more nuance and that creamy mouth feel. By all means, eat the rind on their soft-ripened cheeses, for it adds complexity.
The infusion of financial resources from Rians and its particular cheese-making expertise is putting Marin French Cheese Company on a trajectory that’s “like going from our early days of the Gold Rush to NASA,” Lynne said.
Some of the changes already completed and in the works include: new equipment; a gentle facelift to the retail store; new packaging; new website; beehives for producing honey; planting olive trees; and returning some farm animals to the land.
Marin French Cheese Company is part of the Sonoma Marin Cheese Trail, which links some two dozen artisan cheese producers throughout Sonoma and Marin Counties. So much cheese, so little time….
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Some cheese fun facts:
- 1 gallon of milk = 1.2 pounds of cheese
- It takes 500 gallons of milk to make 1 batch of cheese